On my way home from work last night, I fired up my Twitter feed and found a series of tweets suggesting that today's meeting between pope and president might not go as well as some liberals had been predicting. They had read a piece by Thomas Reese, SJ, who worried that "controversy" could "cloud" the event. He'd seen a Vatican Radio report that concluded with a sloppy summary of disagreements between Obama and the U.S. bishops over the contraception mandate and gay marriage--rather than emphasizing areas of agreement, such as poverty. Reese pointed out that Vatican Radio is under the direction of Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, and wondered whether the article in question might be part of a "coordinated media strategy coming out of the Vatican Secretariat of State."
When Tom talks about the Catholic Church, people listen--as well they should. Good luck finding a more knowledgable observer of the scene. But on this issue, I think Tom's final thought in that post is the one worth heeding: "Sometimes a story is just a story and has no more authority than the individual author." Vatican Radio is not micromanaged by the Holy See press shop. If it were, people might start thinking the pope was poised to adopt the agenda of Future Church.
Over the past week, it seems like everybody with an internet connection has published explainers and prognostications about the meeting. It's only natural. The first Latin American pope meets the first black president. Is Pope Francis the Barack Obama of the Vatican? Obama the Francis of Washington? Contraception mandate at the Supreme Court. Putin's border-crossings. Inequality. Poverty. War. It's news. But media coverage has run the gamut from useful to really not.
In the former category: Jason Horowitz reminded New York Times readers of Obama's past work with the Catholic Church. David Gibson smartly wondered whether the meeting could "reset" Obama's "frayed" relations with the U.S. bishops.
Somwhere in the middle was John Allen, who argued that such a reset "may not be in the cards," because the two world leaders disagree about abortion and contraception (as though liberals were expecting Francis and Obama to stride onto the balcony of St. Peter's to announce co-sponsored legislation).
And in the latter category: Noted expert on the Catholic Church Rand Paul advised the president to explain to the pope "why he is telling businesses in America they can’t remain true to their faith and stay in business." This morning, renowned scholar of Catholicism Reza Aslan weighed in at the BBC, explaining that the "founding philosophy of the Jesuits" was "the preferential option for the poor," that Jesus' message on poverty was "about literally replacing the poor with the rich, of them changing places, if you will" (I won't), that the pope "isn't even preaching truly what Jesus was preaching...that the rich and the poor should switch places." Aslan continued to regale listeners with his revolutionary hermeneutic of replacement: "The real power of this meeting comes from the fact that both men are interested in replacing values with politics." And on Tuesday Edward Morrissey tried to cool liberal jets by predicting that the Vatican would "confront" Obama on the contraception mandate and drone strikes.
So what really happened during this morning's fifty-two-minute meeting? Depends on what you read. The Washington Post bizarrely led by claiming Francis and Obama have "radically different politics." (On abortion? Yes. On economic inequality? No.) Over at the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus mistook that Vatican Radio piece for an official statement of the Holy See.
The Associated Press ran a couple of scintillating ledes. First came this:
Sharp differences over abortion and birth control surfaced as President Barack Obama held his first meeting Thursday with Pope Francis, even as the president sought to emphasize common ground issues like economic inequality during a much-anticipated Vatican visit.
Politico got into the act too, claiming that Obama was "confronted...by concerns over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate." Conservative outlets like CatholicVote.org ran with it, alleging that "the Holy See Press Office stunned Vatican watchers when it confirmed that freedom of religion stood front and center during discussions about domestic affairs while social justice issues seemingly took a back seat to the conversation." (Catholic Vote failed to mention that Obama didn't receive a document on bioethics from Pope Francis, as he did from Pope Benedict.)
That's not how Obama characterized the conversation. The president said in a press conference that the "bulk of the time was [spent] discussing...the poor...and growing inequality." He said that they also discussed peace, especially in the Middle East, and immigration reform, but that the pope "did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act" and religious freedom. Rather, that came up in Obama's subsequent meeting with Secretary of State Parolin. And if you look at the Vatican's own statement on the meeting, you won't find much contrast with the president's account:
During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved. In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.
Try not to cut yourself on those "sharp differences"--differences everyone knew about going into the meeting, and nobody expected would be resolved at its conclusion.
Not long after that original AP lede went over the wire, it was replaced with new copy:
President Barack Obama and the Vatican gave distinctly different accounts of the president's audience with Pope Francis on Thursday, with Obama stressing their common ground on poverty and inequality but Vatican officials emphasizing concerns over Obama's health care law, which mandates contraception coverage.
"Sharp differences" was transmogrified into "distinctly different accounts," so now it sounds like someone isn't being totally forthcoming about the meeting. (Politico suggested the same.) And where exactly is the AP seeing Rome's emphasis on Obamacare? We know it came up with Parolin. If that was the Vatican's primary concern, why didn't Francis handle the issue instead?
The problem is that the AP is comparing apples and oranges. So you read that Obama was "incredibly moved" and "honored" by meeting the pope, that the president "was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with [Francis] about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded," and that Obama "was extremely moved by [Francis's] insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests."
The AP then contrasts Obama's off-the-cuff comments with the Vatican's toneless news release:
The marked difference in emphasis introduced a perplexing element to the long-anticipated meeting, which the White House has looked forward to as way to validate Obama's economic policies.... In a report on Vatican Radio the day before the meeting, the Vatican had signaled that the divisive issues would indeed be on the agenda.
There's that Vatican Radio canard again. But no, there's nothing perplexing about the differences between a formal Vatican statement and a president's ad libbed remarks to the press. The Vatican's news release was never going to contain revealing language about the pope's emotional response to meeting Obama. It was never going to go on at any length or in any detail about what they discussed. When Benedict XVI met with George W. Bush in 2008, for example, it was, yes, awesome, but the joint statement of the Holy See and the White House didn't exactly describe the visit in florid terms. That's just how these things go.
I realize that reporters have editors who demand speedy coverage of major news events, that this qualified as one, and that it isn't easy to produce good, accurate copy at the drop of a hat. But what I don't understand is why anybody expected this meeting to produce major news. Francis gave Obama a copy of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Obama gave Francis a box of seeds made from wood reclaimed from the National Shrine. They smiled for the cameras. They talked. The Holy See Press Office produced an anodyne statement on the meeting. It was never going to provide a transparent window on the president's conversation with the pope. Now would be a good time for commentators and reporters to stop fogging up the glass.